At an undisclosed address in north London, meanwhile, the two staff of Scallywag, a fledgling satirical magazine run on a shoestring, were putting together the latest issue in a tiny room containing a telephone and a typewriter.
The two publications which have aroused the wrath of John Major are worlds apart, one founded by Fabian luminaries in 1913 and the other conceived over drinks in a bistro in Hampstead, north London, just over a year ago.
Despite its shorter pedigree, Scallywag has three times the circulation of New Statesman and Society. But neither magazine could afford a costly libel award against it.
Both stood by their articles yesterday, saying that they had been checked by libel lawyers and that the cases would be vigorously contested if they came to court.
Steve Platt, editor of New Statesman and Society, defended the 3,000-word cover story which he co-wrote. 'It is not about whether the Prime Minister has had an affair,' he said. 'It is about the anatomy and persistence of the rumours and the role of gossip and innuendo in giving the story a subterranean life of its own.
'What we have done is to puncture the hypocrisy and discuss openly and calmly how such baseless gossip manages to proliferate so widely in the absence of any factual evidence. It is the difference between a smear and an honest attempt to expose a smear.'
Duncan Campbell, chairman of the Statesman and Nation company, which publishes the magazine, said that the board fully endorsed the article. He doubted that the case would come to court but was confident that the magazine's supporters would contribute to a fighting fund if it did.
The New Statesman has experienced many changes in fortune since it was founded by George Bernard Shaw and Sidney and Beatrice Webb. Beatrice said that its aim was 'to make the thinking person socialistic'.
Editors including Kingsley Martin, the former Labour minister Richard Crossman, and the political commentator Paul Johnson, attracted a wealth of talented writers and contributors. Its former literary editors include Martin Amis.
But since its heyday in the 1960s when circulation reached 92,000, the bible of the left has struggled to survive. Readers deserted it in droves during the 1980s and its obituary was written many times. Financial crisis led to a merger with New Society in 1988.
Nowadays Staggers, as it is affectionately known, has a circulation of about 22,600. After years of big losses, it made a modest profit of about pounds 15,000 last year.
Staff joke that the redesign was financed by earnings of pounds 5,000 from a fuzzy picture of Stella Rimington; the magazine had the only available photograph when she was appointed head of MI5.
The two men who run Scallywag, meanwhile, were unruffled yesterday at the prospect of court action. 'We haven't got a bean - all I own is a clapped-out TV set and a stained suit,' Angus James, the managing editor, said. The editor, Simon Regan, is an undischarged bankrupt.
Mr James, 27, is a former advertising copywriter who claims to have been fired from every job he has ever had. Mr Regan, 50, is a former investigative reporter with the News of the World, although his more recent jobs include the editorship of Butterfly News.
Scallywag, a monthly magazine, started life exposing local scandals in Dorset. A London offshoot was launched in October 1991 and initially sold in pubs in the Camden area. After going London- wide, it began to be stocked by newsagents last October.
In the meantime, circulation soared to 55,000 with a print run of 110,000 planned for the next issue, which will be the first to be sold extensively outside London. A tentative deal for national distribution with W H Smith and John Menzies is being discussed.
Despite its success, production is still informal. Mr James and Mr Regan, the sole writers, meet in pubs to discuss stories. Copies are sent around the country by motorcycle. The premises are 'a cupboard' in a location which the two men prefer not to disclose.
Each edition pays for the last, according to Mr Regan, who said he was 'delighted' by the writ. 'We think it's just a stopping action which will wither out in the next week. But if it comes to court, we will defend it ourselves. We can't afford lawyers.'
New Statesman and Society's decision to run the story was criticised by Francis Wheen, its diarist from 1978 to 1984. 'To run 3,000 words discussing the rumours and then to criticise everyone else for rumour-mongering seems to me extraordinary,' he said.
'If they wanted to run a serious piece about the rumour and its effects, they could have done so without naming the protagonists and going into all the details.
'I don't think they're very good at gossip. They should get on with their traditional job of long articles on whither the Labour Party.'
But a former editor, Anthony Howard, said: 'I am very much opposed to two levels of knowledge, where things that are being talked about by journalists and politicians are not known to the wider public.
'New Statesman did not throw a hand grenade. It is simply telling people what these odd winks and nudges that have appeared in their newspapers are about, and that to me seems valid.'
Christopher Hitchens, who wrote for the magazine between 1973 and 1981, also approved.
'I think the article removes the story from being the private property of Major's political enemies,' he said. 'It also holds up an effective mirror to the journalistic trade.'
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